Untitled (X-Ray of Venus with a Mirror, 1555, After Titian) is part of a series of works by Longo based on x-rays of artworks sourced from museum conservation departments. This particular drawing depicts the x-ray of the famed titular Titian painting housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
The central Venus figure remains at the forefront of the composition, especially her unobscured breast, belly, and right arm. Oddly, however, another female figure, unrecognizable in the original painting, seems to jut out perpendicularly from the Venus’s upper torso, sharing a left arm with the Venus though in a different orientation entirely. Also not seen in the actual painting is the torso of the male figure in the bottom right quadrant of Longo’s drawing.
This figure matches the orientation of the jutting woman, though its appearance remains preposterous, as the legs of one of the Cupids in the painting’s final composition seem to emerge out of the back of the man’s head. The material skeleton of the painting too is visible in Longo’s x-ray drawing. The wooden stretcher forms a cross over the entire composition, and around the edges are the white outlines of the metal nails tacking the canvas to the stretcher. These appear sinister and ghostly, as if their sharp points lie in wait to snare the figures in the center.
Such x-radiography of historical paintings is now commonplace among conservators. The x-ray images can reveal crucial information about the history and material constitution of these objects. This is most certainly the case in the x-ray of Venus with a Mirror. The hidden figures invisible in the final painting show that the canvas was reused and painted over from an earlier composition. What’s more, Titian kept the cloak of the underlying male figure and instead of painting over it, incorporated it into the velvet drapery that the Venus wraps around herself. This detail, along with the historical knowledge that Titian retained the painting in his studio until his death, has led scholars and conservators to think that this was the original rendition of the Venus with a Mirror motif that Titian revisited roughly 15 times throughout his career in various subsequent paintings.
This kind of visualized image archaeology speaks to the core of Longo’s practice and its meticulous investigation of the nature and meaning of images. We see a literal excavation of an image. The x-ray digs beneath the surface of the painting to reveal its history. That Longo recreates the image painstakingly in charcoal further emphasizes the material precipitation of this historical knowledge via the x-ray. Longo protracts the x-ray’s instantaneousness as if to capture the gulf of time separating us from the moment of the original painting’s creation.
Alongside the important historical information it helps garner, the x-ray image itself possesses undeniable intrigue. The simultaneous appearance of the underlying figures alongside the final ones on the surface produces a surreal effect, especially where they overlap and one figure’s body parts appear incongruously appended to another’s. The black-and-white x-ray also simulates a photographic double exposure. The smudged and hazy appearance of the figures and the now-visible crimps of the canvas fabric create a strangely mechanized vision of art history, as if we are looking at some component of an unspecified image reproduction apparatus that has been used and used again. The stretcher contributes to this effect, appearing like a standardization marking pinpointing the center of the composition.
Robert Longo was born in 1953 in Brooklyn, New York, and now lives and works in New York, New York. In 2016, the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow, presented a major exhibition of his works alongside those of Francisco Goya and Sergei Eisenstein. The exhibition, titled Proof, traveled to the Brooklyn Museum in 2017 and to the Deichtorhallen Hamburg in 2018. Longo additionally has had one-person exhibitions at the Musée d‘art moderne et d‘art contemporain, Nice; Kunstmuseen Krefeld, Germany; Albertina, Vienna; Isetan Museum of Art, Tokyo; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and the Menil Collection, Houston. He has been included in Documenta 7 and 8, the 1983 and 2004 Whitney Biennials, and the 47th Venice Biennale.
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